Thursday 19 April 2018

April = migrant snipe

April sees the spring passage of migrant snipe through this part of Japan, and it is restricted almost exclusively to April. I don't think I've ever seen one of before April 1st and there are precious few to be found in the first week of May. Though Latham's breeds in Japan it's just as much an 'overseas' breeder as Swinhoe's and Pintail from the Kansai perspective. Swinhoe's is the commonest of this trio in my area, followed by Latham's, which is regular, and Pintail, which isn't.

Looking for snipe in spring is far more satisfying than during the return autumn passage because the drier places this migrant trio can often be found in are less overgrown at this time of year and thus not only more attractive to them but also allowing the birds to be more easily observed. Scanning down berms in the endless rice fields where they are easier to find in autumn is tedious and rarely results in good views.

I usually have enough free time in April to track down a few snipe but this year I haven't been able to get out at all until this morning when I went down to Ogura on the southern outskirts of town. Heavy overnight rain had slowed to drizzle by 6am which is great for looking for snipe as they seem to stay out in the open longer in mucky weather, not unlike Green Pheasants.

That in mind I went directly to a small area used by a radio controlled model aircraft club, a square of mown grass in the middle of mixed farmland. As I approached, letting the idle speed of the engine carry me forwards at a creep (at least automatics are good for something!), a snipe slipped off the short grass into the slightly longer vegetation of the field edge. It had to be something other than Common - with so many wet fields around no self-respecting Common Snipe would be walking around on the cropped grass of the 'airstrip'.

I stopped and the snipe and I both pretended not to be there; it crouching in the dripping grass and me in my dry seat. I love this game, the snipe invariably gets bored first and starts feeding again affording excellent views but on this occasion, for whatever reason, it decided to fly. Not all bad news though because it called as it took off, the flat, scraping schhhrp of Swinhoe's. I've never heard this call from a bird I've been able to identify as Pintail nor have I heard the more energetic jaaerk I hope to hear from Pintail from a bird I've identified as Swinhoe's. That said, there are plenty of occasions I can't decide one way or the other, either when a bird calls before I was aware of its presence and I struggle to play it back in my mind, or as frequently happens early in the season the calls are difficult to differentiate before I've got my ear in. Then there are others that are simply hard to tell, no doubt it's obvious to other snipe but not always to me. This bird however sounded a perfect Swinhoe's and as always in such situations I want to get confirmation on the ground.

The bird had skimmed a couple of fields before dropping, fortunately a couple of fields here translates to only 100m and it had come down right beside to the next track running parallel to mine. Perfect... or so you might think. I knew exactly where it had gone down and though it had to be either in what amounted to a ploughed field with almost zero vegetation or within the two-metre wide vegetated downward slope bordering the field. Even though it must have been within a couple of metres of me at some point I couldn't find it. This time I got bored with the pretend-I'm-not-here game before the Snipe did.

After about 30 minutes looking for any other birds in the vicinity I went back to the spot and there it was, exactly where I thought it should have been originally. This time it didn't fly and I was able to get the confirming outer tail feather views I wanted.

This particular Swinhoe's wasn't large and it was was relatively short-billed. Head shape and even apparent tail projection can change markedly from moment to moment with these birds depending on stance and activity so this bird could have been very challenging if not for the call and seeing the all important outer tail feathers.

If only taking the head into consideration the bird seems more suggestive of Pintail with its rather short bill, steep forehead and eye position. The greater coverts look much fresher than most of the other coverts apart from a few outers. The fore scapulars, particularly the uppers are also fresh.

On the more it looks more like Swinhoe's now, not just head shape and eye position but also distinct primary projection and tail well beyond the wing tips.

Strong yellow legs are a supportive feature too.

A clear view of the outermost tail feathers. Going through all the images I managed to count 20 tail feathers.

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